How cooking during the pandemic has lost its joy
By Helen Rosner
In theory, I love to cook. I’ve been reminding myself of this lately, repeating it almost like a mantra, humming the percussive, iambic rhythm of the phrase while I clatter around in the cabinets in search of whatever skillet is inevitably at the very bottom of a teetering stack of pans, or ram the blade of a knife through the stalks of yet another head of celery, or fling a handful of salt resentfully at a wholly blameless chicken. In theory, I love to cook.
To cook, as a home cook, isn’t just to cook — it’s to plan, to shop, to store, to prep, to combine, to heat, to serve. If I don’t love all those things, all the time, I can at least reliably expect a jolt of pleasure from one or two: the bland labor of chopping onion is paid for, more or less, by the rich smell of the stew as it simmers. But what I love most about cooking (in theory) is that it’s a puzzle to be solved. In its best form, cooking is a practice measured not in individual dishes but in days and even weeks — a strategic navigation of ingredients, expiration dates, uses and reuses, variety and sameness. I’m no good at chess, but in my mind the rush of realizing that the jumble of aging ingredients piled up in your fridge composes exactly what’s needed to make a beautiful dinner has to be, on some level, how Kasparov felt when he realized he was about to sock it to Topalov.
In March, when it began to seem likely that the coronavirus pandemic would lead to a serious bunker-style hiding out, I felt the expected fear and anger but also, I admit, a certain thrill at the idea of a major shift in the rules of the kitchen game. How do you make it work when you don’t know how often you’ll be able to grocery shop? In early February, I had spoken, for a story, to a couple in Shunde, China, who had somehow been composing culinary sestinas in the midst of a strict lockdown, with minimal access to fresh ingredients; following their lead, in the weeks before New York City issued its own social-distancing mandates, I started growing my own herbs, bought jars in which to put up pickles, scoured cookbooks for recipes that used nothing but pantry ingredients and yet wouldn’t feel like military rations. We would be eating paella, I informed my husband, and cassoulet, and miso soup with homemade tofu, and fresh pasta, and Niçoise salads without the lettuce. We might be prisoners in our apartment, but at least we’d eat like kings.
Of course, that’s not how things went down. It became clear, almost right away, that, besides a few precarious weeks of toilet-paper shortages, any worries of major supply-chain disruptions were unfounded. If anything, by April, home cooks (at least, those whose incomes hadn’t evaporated when the nation began its economic domino-fall) had access to more and better ingredients than we’ve ever had before: as restaurants were forced into state- and city-imposed shutdowns, their suppliers started scrambling to sell their now-homeless inventory at retail, and often by mail. Steaks once destined for steak houses, chickens of rare and beautiful breeds, exquisite olive oils and vinegars by the gallon, gorgeous cheeses, freshly milled flours, a dazzling cornucopia of specialty fruits and vegetables—the sorts of rare and sensitive specimens that risk-averse grocery stores would never consider making space for—were suddenly available, and at shockingly attainable prices. During the past seven or eight months, my refrigerator has been stocked with the raw materials of fantasy; you could dive into my spice drawer like Scrooge McDuck into his swimming pool of doubloons. I’ve stir-fried Sichuan-style cumin lamb, made slow-roasted pernil asado, fired up pots of oil for a farmers’-market fritto misto; I spent what felt like the summer juicing limes and slicing fish for an endless parade of tart, light-as-air ceviches; I’ve made hundreds of dishes for hundreds of meals. And I am so bored. I am so tired. In theory, I love to cook. But I am so, so sick of cooking.
I take some comfort in knowing that I’m not at all alone in this feeling. “I hate cooking now, and I hate that I hate cooking,” my friend Sarah confessed to me recently, after months of making and eating meals by herself while her partner works a schedule that, thanks to COVID-19, means he’s never home for mealtimes. A recent Quartz report points to increased sales of prepared foods as evidence that Covid-related kitchen fatigue is a bona-fide trend. The critic Tejal Rao wrote recently, in the Times, about culinary burnout: “I don’t think I’m supposed to admit this here in the Food section, but when I think about cooking, I’m filled with dread.” My social-media feeds are full of individuals regarding their own culinary ennui with something adjacent to awe. “I don’t know what to make for school lunch. or for dinner. or for breakfast. i no longer know what i like to eat, what i know how to cook, what is healthy, what the children enjoy, or even what is actually edible,” the novelist Rumaan Alam tweeted recently. Others yearn for a sci-fi future where dinner is distributed in pellet form, or own up to subsisting on candy bars, or grudgingly admit to, finally, understanding the allure of zero-effort meal replacements like Soylent and nutritional drinks such as Carnation Breakfast Essentials® products. I keep thinking about a post from earlier in the fall (now deleted, but seared forever in my screenshots folder, and on my heart), which made the rounds among my friends: “gotten to the point with eating where i basically just want a nutrient slurry injected into me,” the Twitter user wrote.
Feelings of emptiness are normal, even expected, in times of stress and uncertainty. (“Stress and uncertainty” being at best a tiptoeingly diplomatic way to describe the experience of the past year in America, with its million and a half dysregulations, both ambient and immediate.) But isn’t cooking supposed to be a balm for this sort of thing? Much of the happiness I used to find in cooking — even when cooking became, sort of, my job—was rooted in how tangible it was, in both labor and outcome. Simple, repetitive, semi-creative tasks like kneading dough and chopping dill are supposed to thaw us when we’re frozen with existential dread, to ground us in the tactile world, to give us a sense of power and control over the small universe of the cutting board and the stovetop. This makes sense, I know it’s true, and I guess I remember living it, and believing it. But lately it feels awfully far away. I don’t want to re-center myself by being mindful while I peel a head of garlic for the hundred-and-thirtieth day in a row; I want to lose track of myself entirely by playing seventeen straight hours of a battle-strategy video game in which I get to be a military-school professor with magical powers and green hair.
Much has been made, in these months of the pandemic, of the wisdom to be found in “How to Cook a Wolf,” M. F. K. Fisher’s great guide, from 1942, to cooking and provisioning during the extreme shortages of the Second World War. I’ve always loved this sharp, snarky little book, particularly the way Fisher walks a tightrope between buck-up bonhomie and stark misanthropy. She doesn’t pretend that circumstances aren’t dismal well beyond the contents of her pantry—the wolf of the title is fatigue and anxiety as much as it’s hunger. But she makes a good case, in chapters like “How to Be Cheerful Through Starving” and “How to Rise Up Like New Bread,” for finding the fun in misery. “Here are some suggestions which sound touched with a kind of sordid whimsy until you to try them,” she says, to introduce a list of alternative fuel sources culled from books dating back as far as the Victorian era. “Then they really work, and make you feel noble and brave at the same time.”
From the vantage point of abundance, this sentiment is inspiring; in an era of need and shortage, it’s timeless and practical. For me, right now, it makes me want to hurl a cabbage at the wall. (I’ve had a cabbage taking up space in my fridge for over a month now; this use for it seems as good as any.) Behind Fisher’s exhortations was an engine of higher purpose: the rationing of that era was a cost of fuelling a war, the sacrifices on the home front motivated by a narrative of patriotism and righteousness. The Covid-19 pandemic is sort of a war, but only in the most absurd and nihilistic way: the economy hasn’t been diverted to wartime production—it’s just in crisis. The people trying to make do with limited resources are in that position because they don’t have jobs or adequate (if any) governmental relief, not because all the butter is earmarked for our boys overseas taking down the Nazis. “I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment,” Fisher writes, beautifully, and to my great irritation. My enjoyment is anything but “ever-increasing.”
I actually have grown as a cook a fair amount during these months of social distancing: I’ve read some marvellous cookbooks; I know how to shuck an oyster now; I’ve mastered the art of slow-roasting a duck until the skin crackles and the meat is tender as a sigh. But the moments of glittering satisfaction are duller, and less frequent. I’ll try to muster up the thrill I used to feel after finding bundles of Chinese pink celery at the farmers’ market, or scoring a really excellent jar of jam, and it’s more like a memory of delight than the actual sensation. (And I can’t remember what I even used to make with jam—what on earth do people do with jam?) When I cook now, it’s not because I have to—though I realize this is a great luxury, to be able to give in to the lassitude and tap out, to order delivery saag paneer or (I refuse to be ashamed) crack open a soothing can of Beefaroni and leave the rest of my household to fend for themselves. (That I’ve ever been able to think of cooking as an unadulterated joy — that cooking gets to be a choice at all — is itself a privilege.) When I cook now, it’s because I ought to: it’s not a necessity driven by material limitation but, rather, an amorphous sense of moral imperative. In Covid-ravaged America, restaurant dining is still forbidden in some states; many establishments have closed forever, and ordering delivery from those that remain is an ethical minefield. Just when I started feeling like I might be up for the idea of bundling up to eat a wintry outdoor meal at a bistro table sandbagged in the middle of a parking lane, New York City’s infection rates started spiking again. Obligation, it turns out, is the real thief of joy; they wouldn’t make so many TV commercials featuring women who seem ludicrously happy to be doing laundry if endless compulsory domesticity didn’t slowly sandpaper away at the soul.
Compared to, well, everything, this crisis of culinary anhedonia is small beans. (I’ve been telling myself every day for a week that I should start soaking some beans. I have not soaked any beans.) But it feels all the more acute as we round the corner to Thanksgiving, a day that has come to rely on the terrible notion that a home-cooked meal is essential, and that the work of cooking it ought to be both all-consuming and undertaken without complaint. This is a lie in any year — not only is it perfectly fine not to make turkey, it’s perfectly fine to try and then fail, or to outsource the meal, or to reject the holiday altogether. This year, when the still-unchecked spread of the Covid-19 virus means that gathering in close quarters with loved ones seems reckless, and dangerous, the idea of cooking a grand, communal meal feels all the more dissonant. The sprawling multigenerational crew that populates my usual Thanksgivings will of course be celebrating separately; there are plans for a group video call, so that we can raise a glass to tradition, and for a while we considered a plan for everyone to make one recipe in common — a thread of a shared dish (mashed potatoes? Some sort of green-bean thing?) tying us together while we’re all so far apart. But that idea fizzled. We’ll eat our own meals in our own homes, and call one another to say hello and “I love you.” And then dinner will be over, and the leftovers from the meal will last a day or two or maybe three. And then we’ll all find ourselves back in front of the stove, cooking another dinner, all over again.
Helen Rosner is a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 2016, she won the James Beard award for personal-essay writing.
Credit: The New Yorker